Oofty Goofty Wore a Leather Pad in His Pants
A Selective Timeline of San Francisco Street Characters Associated with Emperor Norton
Emperor Norton was a Public Character — which is to say…
1) He adopted and cultivated a dramatic persona and a title.
2) He was seen and known primarily by how he presented that persona
and title in streets and other public places, and in the media.
Accounts of Emperor Norton often note that he is the most famous of a larger cast of Public Characters that peopled the streets of San Francisco during his lifetime.
But, few of those usually mentioned were self-consciously drawn Characters in the sense outlined above. Many — like Angelo Sanguinetti, a hard-luck immigrant who scavenged food scraps and cigar stubs from the literal gutters — simply were “curious individuals” who were around for long enough to earn a moniker from the press. Sanguinetti is known in contemporary accounts as “The Gutter Snipe” — but not because he called himself that.
Others did make themselves into proper Characters and promote themselves as such — often for business reasons. But, with the exception of Frederick Coombs a.k.a. George Washington II, the biographical details — legal names; dates of birth and death; and exactly when, and for how long, these Characters were in San Francisco — often are left in clouds of ambiguity.
As it happens, one of the most famous Characters mentioned in connection with Emperor Norton didn’t even arrive in San Francisco until three or four years after the Emperor’s death.
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Here are five of the Characters most often associated with Emperor Norton — in order of their appearance on the San Francisco scene.
Each one merits his own article.
DURING EMPEROR NORTON’S REIGN
The Money King
Active in San Francisco early 1850s to 1863.
On 17 September 1860, the Daily Alta newspaper reported that Abraham J. King (c. 1808–1863) came to California several years ago from New Orleans, after a heavy failure. Since his arrival he has accumulated quite a fortune, and has made himself conspicuous by his singularly common and dirty dress and curious habits.”
Reputed to be a “miser,” King was said to be something of a curbside loan shark. From San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay (1940): “Found daily on the sidewalks around the financial district was a greasy figure, old and lonely, displaying a large banner reading, ‘Money King, You Can Borrow Money Cheap’; he charged his borrowers exorbitant rates of interest.”
And, yet, according to King’s 15 September 1863 obituary in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin: “[H]e has on several occasions shown freaks of extravagance and foolishness not consistent with his general character. On one occasion, being taunted with being a miser and loving money more than anything else, he challenged his opponent to throw a $5 piece into the bay for every $20 piece thrown by him (King). The challenge was accepted and King threw in some $200 into tho the bay, when the other man ‘weakened.’”
The Bulletin went on: “Being an Israelite, the congregation of Sherith Israel have taken charge of his body and will inter it in their cemetery of Sibcoth Olam, or Hills of Eternity, at the Mission Dolores.”
George Washington II
Active in San Francisco March 1861 to December 1864
It appears that Frederick Coombs (1803–1874) arrived in San Francisco from his native New York in late 1849 — around the same time as Joshua Norton. Coombs already was a recognized lecturer and a published author on phrenology. But, he made his way in San Francisco mainly as a photographer. Coombs had a daguerrean gallery at the corner of Montgomery and Clay, which he maintained until January 1852, before selling the business and moving back to New York.
On 26 July 1859 — a little less than two months before Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor on 17 September — the Daily Alta newspaper published notice of a letter it had received from from Coombs, who recently had arrived back in San Francisco and was living on Montgomery Street. Coombs had no gallery this time, and was seeking permission from the Board of Supervisors to set up his photography business on the civic plaza.
Apparently, this didn't work out. By March 1861, "Professor Coombs" — or "Uncle Freddy," as he came to be known in the press — was dressing and presenting himself as George Washington II. For a couple of years, he was as notable a San Francisco street character as Emperor Norton — on more than one occasion appearing with the Emperor in popular satirical cartoons by Edward Jump.
1864 was a bad year for Uncle Freddy. In February, he was charged with larceny and arrested. In June, he was the victim of a beating. On 26 December, the Alta reported that he was "endeavoring to raise means wherewith to leave the State."
By July 1866, references to Coombs began appearing in regular "letters from Washington" that were published in various California newspapers — including in San Francisco. Whether Coombs was living in the nation's capital during this period is unclear. But, certainly, between summer 1866 and summer 1871, when he moved back to New York (where he died in 1874), Coombs was spending a lot of time in Washington.
He never returned to San Francisco.
The Great Unknown
Active in San Francisco 1870 to 1871
On 18 July 1871, Friedrich Wilhelm Frohm (b. 1833) — whose name newspapers generally anglicized to “William Fromm” — granted a lengthy interview with a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. In the resulting profile — published in the next day’s paper — the Chronicle quoted Frohm as saying that he was born “the seventh son” on 27 August 1833 in a small town in western Prussia and that he “left [Germany] in 1854 and went to Liverpool, from thence to New York, on to Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and so on to San Francisco, arriving at 7 o’clock in the morning of March 30, 1860.”
It appears that local newspapers didn’t start “writing him up” as The Great Unknown until 1870. By then, he was a reputed fixture of the Montgomery Street promenades — but, it wouldn’t have taken long for the papers to take note of such a figure as he. The Great Unknown was…known for cultivating an air of mystery by being quiet of speech but "loud” of fashion. He was meticulously groomed and dressed — and this was set off by a trademark enormous head of black hair (which may have been a wig).
On 25 July 1871, The Great Unknown arrived in Sacramento for a series of afternoon and evening “receptions” at the Orleans Hotel. According to an ad he placed in the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper, he expected to be there “for a few days.”
On 28 July, the Union published a notice that “‘The Great Unknown, his wife and hair, left the city yesterday for Salt Lake, announcing his intention of absenting himself from the State for about four months, as a very heavy earthquake would be felt all over this coast sometime between October 20th and 22d.”
It appears that The Great Unknown was not seen in Bay Area newspapers again. But, in early September 1871, Salt Lake City area papers started featuring ads for a new product called “The Great Unknown’s Hair Restorer.” Coincidence?
The King of Pain
Active in San Francisco October to December 1869
In July 1875, J.J. McBride (d. 1878) fell afoul of Nevada’s new anti-quackery law. McBride was a snake oil salesman. His product: Dr. J.J. McBride’s King of Pain. This herbal remedy — “for external and internal use” — heavy on the alcohol — was marketed as a cure-all for everything from fever to sprains to rheumatism to depression.
McBride spent liberally on elaborate, full-column newspaper ads including several testimonials — many of which are given the force of an affidavit, with separately signed addenda from a local elected official or Justice of the Peace. The ads begin appearing around 1860, and, through them, we can trace McBride’s path over the next decade through Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Kansas, South Carolina and Minneapolis, before arriving in San Francisco in October 1869.
At a certain point, McBride became so famous for his “King of Pain” tonic that he himself became known as The King of Pain. Adding to the mystery: In June 1868, a series of letters and notices — including a letter signed “King of Pain” — appear in the Public Ledger of Memphis, Tenn., identifying him not as Dr. J.J. McBride but as Dr. George McBride Lawrence.
Typically, “McBride” — known as a gambler and a dandy who rode around in a barouche pulled by four white horses — didn’t stay in any one place for more than a few months, usually less. Where he did stay, he worked out arrangements with local “druggists” to carry his product, and he set himself up in a local hotel to receive “patients.”
In San Francisco, McBride was at the Orleans Hotel, at 121 Post between Kearny and Dupont from early October until late December 1869. By the end of his “run,” McBride’s ads in local papers claimed that — at a buck a pop — he had sold 45,000 bottles in San Francisco alone and 1M bottles in the previous two years.
AFTER EMPEROR NORTON’S DEATH
Active in San Francisco c.1884-1891
The Characters noted above were known primarily for one thing. But, Leonard “Leon” Borchardt (b. 1862) was known for his willingness to do anything “for a dime.”
Born in Berlin, Borchardt burst onto the San Francisco scene in 1884, when he was hired to do a freak show stint as the caged “Wild Man of Borneo” at a dime museum on Market Street. He was “painted” in glue then covered in horsehair; and he grunted “Oofty! Goofty!” After three weeks, it was clear that the “costume” wasn’t working out so well — Borchardt had to be hospitalized to get the fur and glue off, a process that often took some skin with it. But, the name — Oofty Goofty — stuck, and this is how he was known for the rest of his life.
Over the next few years, Oofty appeared in the local papers for engaging in a variety of carnivalesque and vaudevillean antics-for-hire: Having himself shipped to Sacramento in a box. Drinking six bottles of beer in six minutes — with a teaspoon. Competing in distance walking and roller skating contests.
In the early 1890s, Oofty Goofty took his act on the road, performing in variety-show and other engagements further afield in California and in Washington state, Montana, Texas and Canada.
By 1900, Oofty had settled in Houston, where he appears to have remained until at least the early 1920s, when directory listings for him there go cold.
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Perhaps the “feat” for which Oofty Goofty is best known is allowing people to hit him with sticks of varying size, in exchange for a small fee — the bigger the stick, the higher the fee.
Oofty started doing this in late 1884 or early 1885 — as a free agent. Later, it became part of his act. He was known as “Professor Hardness.”
The myth surrounding this schtick — and it was a schtick — flows mainly from Herbert Asbury’s account in his 1933 book, The Barbary Coast.
But, Asbury seems to have relied mainly on later accounts — from the 1890s — in which Oofty Goofty and his promoters fed the newspapers stories about this part of his “repertoire” that conflated, embellished and elided key facts so as to advance the myth that Oofty was, as Asbury wrote, “insensible to pain” and that he could sustain being “kicked and pummeled” anywhere on his body without feeling anything.
In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, published in June 1885 — years before the Oofty Goofty legend had taken on a life of its own — Oofty explained the real set-up [emphases added in transcription below]:
“My next step was to sue my manager for malicious mischief having stuck the hair on and not giving me the means of getting it off again. After that I found it a hard time to get along, being kicked out of nearly every place I went for work. A new scheme presented itself to my mind and I decided to take advantage of the blows that people delighted in showering on me. It was in my last undertaking that I got the name of ‘Professor.’ My stock in trade was a leather pad I wore in the seat of my trousers and my customers were young men, who would pay from 10 cents to $2, according to the thickness of the cane with which I would allow them to strike me with one blow as I bent forward over the back of a chair. Saturday nights were the best for my business, as generally customers were numerous in every resort of sports and the boys would sometimes get excited over the fun and pay well for each blow. My receipts some nights amounted as high as $10, and the world looked bright with the prospect that I would soon earn money enough to go back to Germany, my home, until this trouble came up to shatter my hopes.”
“Tell me, Oofty, did not the boys hurt you with their canes?” was asked.
“No,” he replied, “they could not hurt me much with my pad, but one night they caught me without it and I was held over a chair by some while others nearly cut me in two with their sticks. I remember another time when Whistler, the wrestler, offered me a dollar for a blow with an ordinary-sized stick, and while I was not looking used a five-pound Indian club. It nearly broke my back and sent me sprawling into another room.”
Clearly, Oofty’s “business” here was a kind of paddling game, in which “players” were invited to take their whacks on one spot only — Oofty’s backside, where he’d put a thick piece of leather under his pants to protect himself from the blows. The players may even have been in on the joke. The main question seems to have been whether the players would play fair. No doubt, Oofty was at least somewhat less vulnerable, physically, when he was doing this as an act in shows and the players were, like him, part of a cast, than when he was marketing his entertainment in rowdy bars, where the players were drunken carousers out to impress their drunken carouser friends.
It’s telling and sad that Oofty so readily could recall specific incidents in which people felt entitled and empowered to inflict pain on him for their own pleasure. Indeed, his comment that he “decided to take advantage of the blows that people delighted in showering on me” suggests that assaults and beatings may have been routine for him.
Newspaper coverage of George Washington II and The Great Unknown reveals that these men, too, were assaulted in the streets.
This is a reminder that, although the San Francisco of the 1850s to 1870s was a colorful place, thanks to Characters like those profiled here, it also could be a very rough place for those same Characters — people whose “color” placed them on the often unprotected margins of society.
Although Emperor Norton was openly mocked by some and even was falsely arrested on one occasion, it doesn’t appear that he ever was assaulted or beaten.
This may reflect the fondness and esteem in which the Emperor was held.
Certainly, Emperor Norton enjoyed a certain level of protection in virtue of the fact that — unlike Oofty Goofty or, indeed, most other Public Characters of the time — the Emperor was on friendly speaking terms — and because it was known that he was on friendly speaking terms — with those who had money, power and influence.
Or, perhaps the Emperor’s sword was more of a deterrent than we know.
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